The Pro’s and Con’s to Contracting Overseas
Story and photographs by Robert Spunga * Photographs by Danielle Breteau
Today, there are hundreds of thousands of men and women working overseas on various contracts and making good money, probably two to three times what they can make in the United States. On top of that, they may even be eligible for the foreign earned income exclusion, which in 2018 meant that the first $99,200 of their total income earned overseas was excluded from being taxed at the Federal level (it’s higher for 2019). However – and I can’t emphasize this enough – they are earning it!
While driving through town, even in an armored vehicle, there are many ways insurgents can hide IED’s or other types of explosives. This SUV was the victim of a dead donkey lying on the side of the road. The carcass was used to hide an IED which was detonated as the SUV passed by.
Naturally, the best-paying jobs are in high-threat environments such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, etc. Yes, these places can be dangerous. Since 2001 over 3,300 civilian contractors have been killed, and almost 95,000 were injured in Iraq and Afghanistan alone. The vast majority were third-country nationals, or TCNs, from places like Peru, Colombia, Philippines, Fiji, Uganda, Kenya, Egypt, Pakistan and so on. There were thousands of casualties from the US as well. In reality, the odds are that you will not be injured, but you need to be aware that the possibility certainly does exist.
On the other hand, there are thousands of jobs in less risky places such as Kuwait, Qatar, India, Saudi Arabia, Africa, Antarctica (no kidding! – there are actually waiting lists) and South America. It all depends on your skills, your sense of adventure and what you are willing to put up with.
It is not uncommon to share a small space. Be prepared for this possibility.
As an overseas contractor you are often working in “austere environments.” This can range from living in a large tent with 15 other people and eating MREs (meal ready to eat) all the way up to enjoying individual rooms with a private bathroom, Internet, satellite television and access to gymnasiums, movie theaters, tennis courts and well-run dining facilities. It all depends on the company you are working for and where the contract is being performed.
Sometimes living conditions are clean and neat, while other may only offer tents, and holes dug in the ground for human waste. Each contract or job offers different benefits.
Let’s talk about the pay. Again, this is all dependent upon where you are working, what you are doing, how long you are expected to be away from home and the living conditions. Generally, as a contractor you can expect that your living accommodations and food will be included as part of the deal. Pay can be as low as $15 per hour for unskilled labor or simple administrative functions. But remember, this is usually based on a 12-hour day and six days per week. That works out to $1,080 per week, $5,400 per month. Not bad for those who have very few skills, plus there isn’t much in the way of expenses to pay either. At the other end of the spectrum, there are contracts currently paying more than $1,800 per day! Do the math and you can see that that is a butt-load of cash. However, you need very special skills and experience, plus there is probably a very high risk of being seriously injured, captured by bad guys and having to wear those unflattering orange jumpsuits, and/or killed. Is the risk worth it to you and your family?
This is an example of a food hall set up just for the American and european staff. These are often operated by area locals and with from the immediate area.
Getting a job and how much you can earn comes down to several things:
What documented skills you have?
Whether or not you have or can obtain a security clearance;
What you are willing to put up with?
Were you in the military? If so, what was your MOS or occupation specialty? If you were in combat arms, were you in special operations, a grunt infantryman, military police, sniper, artillery? What about military aviation – pilot, jet engine mechanic, helicopter crewman? How about a background in intelligence – analyst, collection specialist, interrogator, translator? There is also combat engineer – plumbers, machinists, surveyors, draftsman, masons, and carpenters. Similarly, logisticians are highly desired – warehouseman, inventory specialist, shipping, motor pool, etc. You get the picture. Almost anything you did while in the military is desired by contractors.
But what if you were never in the military? Not to worry. If you were in law enforcement (preferably some form of SWAT) and there is a verifiable record of that, there are many options, especially if you are looking for security positions.
The Kabul international airport in 2005.
Almost any job you can think of can be found overseas, but companies are going to need proof that you can do what you say you can. This is mostly due to liability potentials, not to mention the company does not want to hire someone and pay for their travel, only to find out after a few weeks that they are not what they originally claimed to be. There are enough posers out there – don’t be one because you will be exposed eventually!
Security clearances are huge, especially with government contracts. At a minimum you will have to be able to pass a basic background check. One of the biggest disqualifiers is heavy debt. Why? The thinking goes, if you owe a great deal of money, you will be more likely to be tempted by bribes. Yes, it doesn’t make sense because you want to get the money to pay off those debts but then they won’t hire you. It has never been said that government logic makes any sense.
An arms dealer on Chicken Street in Kabul Afghanistan. This guy sells everything from historical replicas to AK47’s. Talk about freedom to bear arms! No laws. Anyone can buy one, have one and walk with one. These sites are common.
Now, pay attention because this one is important: Do not lie on the forms. Let me say it again: do not lie on the forms. Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The investigators will find out. Don’t be embarrassed. The investigators have seen everything before. They also know that no one is perfect and that we humans all make bad decisions at some point in our lives. If you have a reasonable explanation of why you were arrested 15 years ago for indecent exposure/urinating in public, just tell them what happened. (“I was drunk, came out of a bar at 2 in the morning, and peed against the door of another car thinking it would be funny. Unfortunately, the officers sitting in that unmarked car failed to see the humor of the situation!”) We’ve all done stupid stuff.
A square in Baghdad, Iraq, which are common often highly ornate.
Of course, there is no guarantee that you will receive the clearance, but if they find out something that you didn’t disclose, that is an almost automatic disqualification. Even if the job doesn’t require a security clearance, any legitimate company is going to run a background check prior to employment.
Dead Foot Arms
The view from inside an armored personnel carrier. It’s embarrassing to think this sign was necessary.
It is also highly advisable to clean up your Facebook account and any other social media sites where you have posted pictures and information. Those hilarious photos of you passed out at a party next to the toilet in a pool of vomit may invoke wonderful warm memories for you, but your future employer isn’t going to look at them in exactly the same light. Or you could just put some strict privacy settings in place. However, in the long run, it is probably better to do a good scrub of your life on the Internet. You’d be amazed at how easy it is to dig up information about someone online.
What are you willing to put up with? Can you live in a tent with a bunch of other guys in a remote, hot, dusty location for weeks on end, peeing in bottles or sharing a drafty wooden outhouse, enduring occasional rocket and mortar attacks and eating only military rations or local food?
Can you work with people from foreign cultures who are very strange to you? How about personal space? Again, the idea of personal space is different in every culture. Some of these folks will stand right up next to you while they talk. If you keep backing away they are going to think something is wrong and be offended.
The hygiene conditions in Afghanistan and many other countries in southwest Asia and the Middle East, are often not the same as western civilizations. Even if the meat and vegetables are in good condition, a westerner may still need several months for their bodies to efficiently handle these foods.
Personal hygiene is also different. Many people around the world don’t bath nearly as often as Americans and have some pretty strong body odors. And even if they are clean, they may smell different due to the foods they eat. You also may or may not be allowed to talk to the local women. What is a common occurrence in America may be highly insulting to other cultures, such as exposing the bottom of your shoe when crossing your legs.
Do your homework about where you want to work and decide what you can and cannot tolerate. Remember, you are in other people’s country, and as the old saying goes, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
A common site in downtown Kabul, Afghanistan. Sheep herders moving their flocks through traffic and across town to better grazing areas.
How about the hours? Many overseas contracts expect a 72-hour work week. Yes, you read correctly: a 72-hour work week, usually 12 hours per day, six days per week. Some might have you work every day of the week for 30 or more days before you are given a few days break. Contracts pay well, but they expect you to work hard. You will be away from home, meaning away from family and friends for months on end. Can your marriage survive that? What about your kids? Then again, some couples without children or who have an empty nest can double their income with both husbands and wives earning money by working on the same contract. This is an excellent way to quickly build a retirement nest egg.
Danielle Breteau, former executive editor for the American Shooting Journal, spent 10 years in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and Jordan as high threat protection specialist, not only for the US Embassy but also other government and private agencies. She is just one example of the diversity you can find in these environments.
All high-threat protection personnel have to be proficient with a wide array of firearms. Here, Danielle Breteau helps a fellow teammate shoot the 249SAW.
You have to have thick skin and a high tolerance for huge egos, and general stupidity because you will run into a lot of that. You may have supervisors who you think are complete morons, and they may very well be. They may only be a supervisor because they have been there longer than you. However, they may also have some reason to enforce a policy, which, while not making any sense to anyone on the ground, makes perfect sense back at corporate headquarters, so the supervisor has no choice but to push it down. Hopefully, they argued the point, but most likely they just rolled over and implemented the new guidance from HQ without so much as a whimper because they want to keep their job. If you really don’t like working for a company, and especially if you think they are asking you to do something illegal or unsafe, start looking for another company to work for. Be fair warned, though: The grass may look greener on the other side, but when you jump that fence, you may find that’s only due to an overwhelming amount of BS.
Overseas contracting is not for everyone. However, it will give you the chance to make pretty good money, you will see and experience things and places you probably never would otherwise, make some great friends, probably meet some people who you will hate for the rest of your life, and give you some bragging rights with the folks back home. Like many things in our lives, it is all up to you and how you make the best of it. Take advantage of the opportunities, get some experience to put on your resume, and have a good time. Always keep a sense of humor. It will be an adventure. But remember the old saying: “Adventure is never fun while it is happening!”
Good luck! AmSJ
Posted in Editor's Blog Tagged with: afghanistan, High Threat Protection, Iraq, Kuwait, Middle East, Personal Protection, Protective Detail, Security
By Danielle Breteau
Most people who pick up this magazine or read this blog might have actually handled a firearm, maybe even twice. At some point, you might have had training, whether it was formal i.e., law enforcement academy/military training or a bit more relaxed such as plinking with friends or family, on a range. Either way, there are cardinal rules one must always follow. These rules are usually touted in the same manner that we use to recite the pledge of allegiance in the classroom. It is doctrine. Let me refresh your memory:
1. Treat every firearm as if it’s loaded.
2. Never point a firearm at anything you are not willing to destroy.
3. Always be sure of your target and what is beyond it.
4. Keep your finger off the trigger until you are on target and ready to fire.
There are various versions of this, usually much longer but these four rules are always part of the program. I draw your attention to number four. When an instructor is working one on one with a student, it is usually clear when the student has inappropriately placed their finger in the trigger guard or is not handling the firearm in a safe manner but what if you are teaching many people at once. It is not always obvious when someone might have slipped their finger into the trigger guard, even to the new shooter, who may be uncomfortable or busy considering the other 57 rules they must learn when on the range or handling a firearm.
Lets look at the training aspect here. What can you do to train in a safer environment until the students get it? I know, blue guns (or red, whatever, a plastic molded gun)! Blue guns are great for training people how to hold a firearm, holster it, handle it, deal with it, etc. This was a great idea and another excellent use of those plastic dolphin-molding machines.
Mike Farrell – Founder and owner of Smart Firearms
Moving on to the 21st century, and the adage “necessity is the mother of invention,” there are products out there that address some the shortcomings of current training tools. Western Shooting Journal recently had the opportunity to interview Mike Farrell, owner and founder of Smart Firearms. Picture a smart blue gun. A training tool that will tell the instructor that the student has let their finger drift into the trigger guard or onto the trigger, at an inappropriate time. This training gun is designed to set off an audible alarm when this “faux pas” happens, but get this … It is smart enough to know when you should and should not be on the trigger. There is an infrared sensor that knows when your finger is inadvertently accessing the trigger or when you actually intend to be there. There is an algorithm set to calculate these actions and unless you are a rocket scientist or electronics engineer, let’s suffice it to say that it is a “smart” tool.
What many do not realize is in the training environment, many bad habits start forming in the blue gun stage. Instructors across the country have adopted the idea that they will simply correct the trigger invasion once they are hot on the range. The problem with this, and one of the reasons it is extremely important to handle any firearm, including a fake one, as if it were loaded, is you build muscle memory every step of the way. I used to think it was ridiculous, when I was in the police academy, that the instructors seemed to overreact when someone muzzled (pass the muzzle of a blue gun over an area not intended for destruction) a fellow cadet. I remember thinking “Surely the instructor knows it’s a piece of plastic.” Having now instructed many students, I have all the respect for that concept and have seen many negligent discharges from new and seasoned shooters.
Another common aspect to training is the “notional” training. The area in training where you do not actually “do” a specific movement but verbalize that at a certain point, you would go through this or that motion. There have been countless times where the notional action has caused a vast amount of confusion between the student and the instructor, much to the exasperation of both. Scientifically, it has been proven that if you do not properly conduct the movement in training, you most likely will not do it when you need your skills the most. The more realistic the training, the more profound the muscle memory and this is where intelligent training tools, create a more realistic environment from the beginning and thwart bad habits.
Smart Firearms is currently distributing their second generation and is already working on the third. Their progressions are directly related to the feedback from law Enforcement agencies nationwide who originally had the units for testing and evaluation purposes. The original algorithms were based on two to three sensors and are now calculating over 121 different feeds. All of that calculation for one movement of the trigger finger.
While talking to Mike, who hails from an in depth pilot background, hence highly technical and subject to perfection, he was passionate about the process and the goals for the unit. There are currently over 42 law enforcement agencies and security companies – nationwide and beyond – which include Dougway Proving grounds and the Phoenix police department who use this device. Mike says the proof is in the returning customer. Most, if not all of his clients who purchased a few to “see how things go” have returned to purchase even more and have fully integrated the Smart Firearm into their curriculums.
When I asked Mike what drove him to start creating this training aid, he said, “We, as a society, ask a lot of our police officers. I believe officers should be provided with nothing but the very best in training equipment if they are to be held to very unforgiving standards. The consequences, for the officer personally, the agency they represent and the citizens they serve, are frankly too high to risk getting it wrong through the use of substandard, outdated training equipment.” Mike went on to say, “We also believe that a PHD level of knowledge exists in the Firearms Tactics/Defensive Tactics units which is, for the most part, completely ignored at the chief level. Our device aside, the answers to most of the use of force issues, confronting police departments around the country, are being answered daily in these units. I have talked at length with hundreds of instructors from all over the country and it is a common theme that most police officers are simply not given enough repetitions in critical functions to properly build correct muscle memory. Muscle memory becomes very important to an officer in a stressful situation. When the heart rate goes up, fine motor function and executive reasoning all starts to suffer. That officer is left to fall back on the training they have received to see them through the day. If a function was not done enough to become ingrained as a gross motor memory, the odds are it will not be carried out correctly.”
We could not have said it better ourselves. I am always open to new concepts and ideas and try my best to see the possibilities in anything I find. What may not be perfect now is possibly a product that is on the way there. We think the concept of this product is fantastic and it appears that agencies that have it, use it and are on the cutting edge of the ever-progressive training standard. – Danielle Breteau
Posted in Editor's Blog Tagged with: Danielle Breteau, Firearms, Law Enforcement, Mike Farrell, Security, smart, SMART Firearms, training